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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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Signal Jammers Go Together in Kearny Mesa

ELECTRONICS: Northrop Grumman Fills Orders for U.S., Australia

A 35-pound assembly of electronics, rigged with two sturdy straps for portability, strains against the shoulders of a civilian touring a factory in Kearny Mesa’s Spectrum Technology Center. The reporter has strapped on the electronic backpack for a few moments.

Lavell Catlin
Manager, General Manufacturing
Northrop Grumman Corporation

Tour guide Lavell Catlin has a knowing grin on his face. He is guiding a group of reporters through the factory at Northrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE: NOC).

Imagine, he tells the group, having to wear the 35-pound backpack in the field while also carrying your clothes, prepackaged food and the miscellaneous other gear that Marines have to carry.

In a previous life, the Monte Vista High School graduate was a Marine himself. Today, he is a manager for general manufacturing at Northrop Grumman, overseeing the people building the electronic backpack and related products.

The product is called JCREW DRAKE. It is a software programmable signal jammer, built to defeat the radio signals of any device that an enemy would use to trigger roadside bombs (also known as IEDs, or improvised explosive devices).

It is an amazing product, Catlin said. “It saves lives on a daily basis.”

Navy Contracts

The JCREW system is worth hundreds of millions of dollars for Northrop Grumman, which builds the devices in Kearny Mesa for the United States military as well as Australia.

In 2017, the U.S. Navy awarded a $267.7 million contract for JCREW DRAKE, according to a Pentagon announcement. A separate, $330 million contract modification came in March 2021. In March 2022, the Naval Sea Systems Command awarded a follow-on contract modification worth $21 million for work that will continue into March 2024. Under the deals, Northrop Grumman also provides spare parts, technical support and manuals.

In 2019, the State Department cleared the way for Northrop Grumman to sell up to 850 JCREW signal jammers to the government of Australia.

A person controls the JCREW electronics with a handheld tablet device. The electronics can also defeat drones, including small, weaponized quadcopters.

The device essentially creates a bubble of protection around a person, vehicle or other military asset. Later, in a nearby conference room, company executives illustrated how they might use the electronics to foil a drone attack around a port, protecting that oceanfront city. The scenario plays out on a computer-generated map. Visitors watch as drones enter a no-fly zone around the port and disappear from the screen.

Not all JCREW units are dismounted models, as the backpacks are known. Some are meant to be mounted on vehicles or to stay in one place. Those units are larger than the mobile backpack model.

JCREW is Defense Department shorthand for Joint Counter Radio-Controlled Improvised Explosive Device Electronic Warfare system. When it is programmed to disable drones, it is known as DRAKE, short for Drone Restricted Access Using Known Electronic Warfare.

The Big Room

The visitors have also come for a look at the big room where the JCREW units are made. Reporters are asked to put on aqua-colored smocks to go onto the factory floor. They also surrender their camera-equipped cell phones, which a Northrop Grumman employee carries in a rolling cart behind the tour group.

As is typical for tours of a military facility, the factory floor has been visually scrubbed for a visit by civilians. Some objects have been put away. Others sit under covers.

Catlin walks the group past stations where workers build the products, taking the route that a typical product would travel, from circuit board assembly to testing, to final assembly to debugging.

The surroundings seem pedestrian: workbenches for building circuit boards, a cylinder of compressed gas, computers in racks, metal shelving typical of warehouses, a boxy machine for test and inspection. One unusual item is a bell, a lot like the bell of a ship.

Someone demonstrates the bell for the group. A hearty applause rises from behind the assembly benches. Normally it is rung when the crew achieves a delivery goal.

A company representative declined to say how many shifts Northrop Grumman runs to build JCREW electronics. The factory is capable of multiple shifts, he said.

Asked about disruptions in the supply chain, a company representative said, “though everyone has them, the company is able to meet contract requirements.”

Northrop Grumman conducted the tour as part of what it called its Connected Demo Day earlier in the spring. Representatives discussed technology for advanced military networks and connectivity solutions, including the use of a secure 5G network, the operational use cases of commercial Hololens technology and the creation of a Digital Battle Network. The demonstrations illustrated some of the company’s initiatives towards the Department of Defense’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control efforts (aka JADC2).

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